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Book Lush 101, Lecture 1: Uncorking English Lit; Or, 'Hand me another mead, Wiglaf'


This is the first in a series of 13 "lectures" included in Book Lush 101: The History of English Literature, Adult Beverage-style. For background on the series, the course syllabus, and a list of all upcoming lectures, visit the Book Lush 101 page.

Lecture 1: Uncorking the beginnings of English literature, or "Hand me another mead, Wiglaf, this epic poetry is killing me."

Beowulf, written sometime in the 700s by one or more unknown British authors, is considered to be the first major work of English literature. This epic poem relates the heroic adventures of the warrior Beowulf, takes place in Scandinavia, and is as boring as hell.

The plot of Beowulf can be summarized in three sentences: The ancient Swedish hero Beowulf kills the monster, Grendel, who has been attacking a Danish mead hall named Heorot. Beowulf later kills Grendel's mother (who bears a striking resemblance to Angelina Jolie) with a magic sword. Beowulf becomes a king and dies after being mortally wounded in a fracas with a dragon.

The one or more unknown British authors, however, seemed to find it necessary to extend the tale into an interminable 3,182 lines, complete with long, irrelevant speeches and language engineered to make the blood of an English major run cold.

Closer inspection of the text though, reveals the hidden purpose of the length, and even content, of Beowulf: it's all about the mead.

Consider this: Beowulf was written (or orally handed down as the case may be) when life was anything but enjoyable. Disease was rampant. Infant mortality was horrifying. The Simpsons were never on at the right time.

The consumption of beverages with a kick was pretty much the only recreation anyone could partake of freely and inexpensively without ending up with another mouth to feed (though sometimes one led directly to the other). The consumption of vast quantities of adult beverages could be easily excused if one was using a literary reading of Beowulf as cover, as in, "Lay off me, woman. I'm busy listening to Sven read about how 'Beowulf bode in the burg of the Scyldings, leader beloved and long he ruled in fame with all folk,' and before you go, hand me another mead." In a situation such as this, the longer the reading, the better.

And take into account the significance of the structure that the monster Grendel attacked -- the mead hall, Heorot. Mead, an alcoholic beverage made from the fermentation of honey and water with yeast, is considered by many scholars to be "the ancestor of all fermented drinks." Mead, which can range in alcoholic content from that of a mild ale to a strong wine, must have seemed like the nectar of the gods to 8th century inhabitants. No wonder why Grendel needed to be taken out -- messing with Danish warriors is bad, but messing with the mead hall? Your days are numbered, son.

          Mead: nectar of Beowulf

Although mead has understandably fallen out of favor in modern times, it is still possible to get a taste of the beverage that got Beowulf raring to go. Here is a homemade mead recipe courtesy of the highly enthusiastic Baron Sir Riekin ap Grugach:

Being a simple recipe and observations on that most ancient and civilized of beverages, MEAD ! Here offered in hopes of leading benighted and ignorant savages toward the light of true humanity and brotherhood.

• 1 - 6 qt or better pot, with cover
• 1 - 1 gal glass jug, well cleaned
• 1 square of paper toweling and a rubber band
or 1 loosely fitting cap, or fermentation lock
• 3 feet of 5/16" or 3/8" aquarium tubing (plastic)
• Enough champagne bottles or 2 liter bottles to hold 1 gal.
(which can be sealed to withstand carbonation)

• 1 packet all purpose wine yeast (do NOT use brewer's yeast or yeast for baking bread)
• 2 lbs. clover or orange blossom honey
• 2 WHOLE cloves (uncrushed)
• 2 sticks cinnamon, lightly broken
• 1/4 tsp. sliced ginger root (do not use powdered)
• 2 long strips of orange peel (approx. 2 tbsp.)
• 1 gal. of the best water available

Bring 3 qts of water to a boil along with the spices.
Simmer 15 minutes. REMOVE SPICES.
Add honey, stirring vigorously (or you'll have caramel on the bottom of the pot!)
Once the honey has fully dissolved, allow the water to barely simmer. White scum will form, skim it, and continue skimming until no more rises. Failure to do this completely will allow the yeast to act on the waxes and form turpines (which tastes like turpentine!) so make sure you get every last bit, no matter how small.
Never allow the mixture to come to a full boil, or the character of the honey will be destroyed.
Take pot off heat, cover, and leave overnight.
Next morning, when the liquid has cooled to room temperature, add the contents of 1 FULL packet of yeast. (Failure to add the entire packet can lead to the incubation of inferior yeast strains which will ruin the flavor.) Cover pot again.
12 to 24 hours later - you should have a wildly foaming mixture.
Siphon the mixture into the previously sterilized 1 gal. glass jug. (Clorox solution is fine for this - rinse well!)
Loosely screw on lid so gasses can escape, or cover with four folded paper towels and rubber band, or fermentation lock.
Allow to ferment for 48 hours more, or until bubbling nearly ceases.
Siphon the liquid off the layer of dead yeast on the bottom of the jug, so that none of the bottom layer gets into the mixture.
Clean the jug carefully, replace the liquid back in the jug, top off with clean water, reseal, and place in refrigerator overnight.
Next day - Siphon into CLEAN, STERILIZED wine bottles or 2 liter soda bottles, and cap tightly.
Leave in refrigerator 3 to 5 days and enjoy!

WARNING: pressure will be forming in the bottles; avoid excessive handling. Flavor will improve up to ten days, after that, you really need to drink it.

Note: The hangover produced by mead was considered by the Norse to be a punishment too sublime to inflict on the frail frame of a mortal. This is probably due to insufficient skimming of the "white scum".

Next lecture? The Canterbury Tales: Alcohol and Literature and Sex, oh my.



  • Elizabeth W., NY Beer Pairing Examiner 5 years ago

    I am so delighted you're doing this! You're also bringing up fond memories of studying Beowulf in college. Did you ever read The Legend of Caedmon...? the story of a saint, who got hammered, then saw God, essentially. Fun stuff!

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